John Ford in his own words: Leveson, lies, and me

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AS IT EXPLODED into the public consciousness in November 2011, like some horrifying new reality show, I found myself doing anything I could to dull the looming personal terrors the Leveson Inquiry promised to unleash.

While Fleet Street’s great and not-so-good were tap-dancing on television for the Lord Justice, I was entering my 14th month on bail with nothing but three fraud charges, jangling nerves, and an unhealthy wine habit to occupy me.

Needless to say, I was not in the best of mental states.

A year earlier, my doctor had diagnosed me with clinical depression, and having no income beyond my weekly £72 Sickness Benefit, my bum was hardly in the butter; it was more the case that my ass was deep-frying in hot fat.

Oh boy, how I wanted Witherow to dance and weave through Jay’s probing jabs, like some white, bespectacled, Mohammed Ali, for the purely selfish reason that he was my protector…

Breakfast was .40mg of Citalopram and a further 5mg of Diazepam. If I had budgeted well, then my weekly trip to Lidl might also afford a bottle or three of cheapest vin rouge to splash on the cornflakes. Together they kept the anxiety at bay. Just.

At that time my mother’s cancer was undiagnosed, and her daily calls were a lifeline. We discussed her mysterious aches and – of course – the gossip from the daily instalment of the Leveson Inquiry.

My mother knew how close I had been to a summons to appear at Leveson’s special jamboree at the Royal Courts of Justice. It was only by dint of my on-going trouble with the City of London Police that I’d been spared, for now.

l-r: former Sunday Times Editor John Witherow, Robert Jay QC, and Lord Justice Brian Leveson
l-r: former Sunday Times Editor John Witherow, Robert Jay QC, and Lord Justice Brian Leveson

But my time would eventually come, they said, at the Inquiry ‘part deux’; to follow once there were no more criminal corruption and phone hacking trials to prejudice.

Yeh, right.

I’d kept my mother fully informed of my detention and bailing for attempting to ‘blag’, er, steal, an advance copy of Tony Blair’s memoir ‘A Journey’.

A Journey: Tony Blair's memoir. Pic, Getty
A Journey: Tony Blair’s memoir. Pic, Getty

I had made two separate, orchestrated, attacks on the book’s publisher Random House.

I first attempted to blag an electronic proof of the manuscript from its production departments.

Having had no luck there, a couple of weeks later, I tried its distribution warehouses worldwide for a printed copy ahead of its scheduled simultaneous global release.

As she sat in her olive green faux leather TV recliner in Cardiff, comforted by a pack of Player’s Navy Cut, so my life was spent in my kitchen, with my laptop tuned to Court 73.

As 2012 – the year doomsayers wailed would bring the apocalypse – spluttered to its hoary start, the number of incoming Leveson witnesses hit 331.

I caught myself thinking the end of the world might be quite welcome. Bring your scythe, Grim Reaper.

Leveson ‘one’ was focused almost entirely on tabloid news cultures and their Faustian forays into phone hacking – a realm, there but for the grace of God, I never entered.

Rebekah Brooks
Rebekah Brooks

My mother showed characteristic alacrity in deciding guilt. “That Ginger,” she’d say of Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Lady Macbeth’, Rebekah Brooks, ‘I don’t like her’.

And she expressed her theories that (Andy) Coulson’s cosied-up position to the incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron would mean justice could never be done.

We watched with sympathy as my former English Master at Bristol’s Clifton College, Christopher Jefferies, spoke with his usual precision and dignity about the heart-breaking events that followed the murder of his neighbour Joanna Yeates.

'Monstered': Ford's old school teacher Christopher Jefferies
‘Monstered’: Ford’s old school teacher Christopher Jefferies

The poor man, though utterly innocent, was monstered by the tabloids, as they rabidly – and oh so wrongly – outed him as a prime suspect. Suffice to say; I felt a strange collision of deep empathy and gnawing guilt.

The main event – for me at least – occurred on the morning of January 17, when a certain John Witherow entered the witness box.

Unusually for any member of The Sunday Times he had no nickname. He had always just been ‘Witherow’ or ‘The Editor’ when discussed by colleagues.

In my 15 years’ work for his paper, I never once met the man, so it was a surprise to see his rather handsome and urbane persona appear before Leveson’s chief inquisitor Robert Jay QC.

For me, it was a nerve-shredding experience, and my petit dejeuner that morning was rather more grape than wholegrain. I stared at the screen as intently as a man watching a boxing match on which he’d bet his house.

Oh boy, how I wanted Witherow to dance and weave through Jay’s probing jabs, like some white, bespectacled, Mohammed Ali, for the purely selfish reason that he was my protector against exposure and a public reckoning for all the bad stuff I’d done.

looming: Royal Courts of Justice
looming: Royal Courts of Justice

At the first opportunity, questioned about private investigator usage at The Sunday Times, Witherow threw ‘alcohol smuggler’ Barry Beardall to the lions. I was having palpitations, waiting for the angel of death to turn to me.

This was it; the moment my secret life as the data criminal who broke into the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s bank account – for no particularly good reason, it turned out – came tumbling into the open.

And then, it didn’t.

For whatever reason, Witherow made only light references to me, and Jay, perhaps in deference to the paper’s gravitas, did not dig as deeply as he might.

My 15 years as a one-man crime wave had been obfuscated satisfactorily. I could scarcely believe it…